Brian and Charles: a charmingly lo-fi sci-fi mockumentary

Jim Archer’s feature debut, from a screenplay by Chris Hayward and David Earl (who also stars as Brian), is more E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial than A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – a feel-good charmer with a glowing human heart.

Brian and Charles (2022)

The union of man and machine is given a lo-fi, British mockumentary comedy treatment in Brian and Charles, an extrapolation of the popular 2017 short film of the same name. Brian (played by co-writer David Earl), a shaggy, middle-aged English loner eking out a meagre living in the bleakly beautiful Welsh countryside, has somehow attracted a film crew to document his fanciful inventions. Behold the Pine Cone Bag, a cloth satchel with pine cones glued on the outside; or a Flying Cuckoo Clock that the Wright Brothers would’ve rejected on sight.

Hence the surprise when the robot Brian builds using fly-tipped rubbish, with its washing machine torso, mannequin’s head and glowing eye, and the fashion style of a raffish elderly academic, springs into walking, talking action. What exactly brings Charles (co-writer Chris Hayward) to life is never made explicit, though the stormy night on which he’s discovered hints at a Frankenstein-esque awakening. Instead, the feature puts faith in its absurdist charms. Logic, and indeed logic boards, are less important than characters assuaging their loneliness – an early shot of a “Brian vs. Brian” darts scoreboard is a quiet heartbreaker – or rediscovering their self-esteem. 

Most big laughs come from Charles’s unlikely penchant for cabbages and happy dancing feet. Or hearing his innocent curiosity about the great wide world swiftly morph into teenage sarcasm, delivered in the unusual cadences and glitches of his speech-synthesised voice. Interestingly for an ‘odd couple’ comedy, he and Brian share the same basic naivety. Brian’s own mannerisms and vocabulary are themselves childlike, as if he too is emotionally arrested: he talks of wanting to “duff up” local bully Eddie, words familiar to anyone who ever witnessed a 1980s playground scrap. Similarly, the sweet romantic subplot with fellow misfit Hazel (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey) is more chaste than many a primary school kiss-chase.

Earl and Hayward first tested these characters in stand-up shows, and together with feature debut director Jim Archer deftly mine a gentle, comforting brand of British comedy reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit, or the recent Paddington movies, particularly the end credits. The extended narrative does smooth away the sharper edges of the trio’s earlier short, its mockumentary approach not really adding much here (the short began with Charles already co-habiting, justifying a film crew’s interest) and effectively being junked midway. And you’d be hard pressed to find the kind of deep interrogation of the human condition in robot form that is familiar fare in loftier sci-fi. If Brian and Charles is ultimately more E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial than A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, it’s still a feel-good charmer with a glowing human heart.

► Brian and Charles is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.